How (Not) to Speak about the Church

Peter Rollins is a writer/thinker who I have been growing more impressed with every time I read his work or see another video. He has a brilliant and provocative perspective on faith that shakes up his readers in all the right ways. I thought Insurrection, which was my intro to Pete, was a great piece that breathed new value into the role of doubt in a life of faith. I have since read Orthodox Heretic, which I loved, and am working my way through How (not) to Speak About God. I find so much in his words that speak straight to my own experiences over the last several years which I have only been able to describe as a dark night of the soul.

While finding so much that I resonate with in his work, I still often find myself slightly bothered by the way that he speaks of church. Well, to be fair, it isn’t just how Pete speaks of church as much as how our culture does. The best, or possibly just most recent, example of this is a video that Pete posted on Facebook earlier today. (I am embedding it at the bottom of this post) The title is ‘Crack House Church’ and the content echoes the thoughts articulated in a recent blog post by a very similar name. His basic idea deals with the way that ‘going to church’ for, many Christians, is like the use of drugs. Just like someone experiencing great pain and loss might drink or take drugs to avoid their pain, only to find after sobering up that the solution was short lived. Attending church services can function in this same way for the Christian that is avoiding their own pain and darkness. People can go to churches where the songs and preaching echo that God is in control and everything is pretty and happy and safe while avoiding the real problems and issues that they need to deal with inside. People even seem to become addicted to church services and in the worst cases of such an addiction we can find people that are doing something with the church almost every night of the week. I cannot agree more with this point. Pete goes on to compare the church functioning in this way with the idea that the church might better serve in the same way as a poet, singer/songwriter or a stand-up comedian in that it helps connect with use in a real and more human way. Pete has a vision for gatherings that are spaces where people can speak freely of doubt, share their struggles and find community around their shortcomings. I think Pete is spot on in his assessment of the gatherings of our churches in that they often more resemble drug dens than recovery groups. When I hear Rollins speak of the kinds of liturgical experiences that he dreams of and works toward at Ikon I am not critical at all. I love his ideas and think that they are needed in our discussions in regards to the form of our church gatherings. I actually love Pete’s words and am really only bothered by that same nagging criticism I have of all of our language surrounding ‘church.’ 

When I say the word ‘church’ one most likely thinks of a building. A church is, in the common usage of the word, a place that we go. I understand that common usage has shaped this term but I still protest. The church, as seen in the pages of the new testament is a people. It is a people who are united by their common pursuit of God, as understood by the life and death of Jesus, and their common mission in the earth. The church is not a place that might better serve us (or the world) to do one thing over another. It is not a place at all. I do think it matters what we do when we gather but that discussion dwarfs in comparison with the ecclesiological question of what the church is to begin with.

This question can only really be answered by wrestling with the questions surrounding Christology and missiology. Our understanding of Christological concepts such as incarnation will and should influence our understanding of how mission should be done. Missiologists will speak in terms such as incarnational mission which had derived itself from the Logos ‘making His dwelling among us’ as the gospel of John puts it. Even the life of Jesus itself is understood as part of the Missio Dei or the Mission of God in this world. Mission then becomes fundamental to our understanding of the church. David Bosch put this idea very well by pointing out that it isn’t so much that the Church has a mission as it is that the Mission has a Church. The Church then is that community that is pursuing God and doing Mission together. Maybe that community does meet together sometimes to worship, or mourn, or strategize or have ‘a psycoanylitic thing’ together but that gathering is secondary to the cause and call which define the church. This is why I am bothered by any comment such as Pete’s ‘For me church at its best is like a psycho-anylitic thing, you go for a time until you are able to find a depth of reality, until you are able to find God in the midst of everything and after that you can go if you want but,…whatever.” It isn’t a matter of disagreeing with the sentiment as long as we can be clear that it is only a small gathering that we are discussing. The use of the word church itself seems problematic to me. The church is not a place that you go for a while and it is not something people skip either. It is an identity and a lifestyle. I have read Peter and agree with the way he points to the content of our lives rather than our ‘beliefs’ that we think we hold. I love the truth that he confesses the he in fact is denying the resurrection every time he does not stand up for those that are forced to live on their knees or speak out for the forgotten voiceless. I apply that same truth to a community and would argue that any community not engaged in mission is not the Church. Once that basic reality is established, we can then discuss how best to use that time we gather together. When we get to that discussion, I agree with peter about how we tend to use it. I personally wish that the gatherings of our churches would take some cues from the 12 step programs that meet in their buildings all over town. I think we have a lot to learn from these gatherings of weak people that are on a journey of recovery together. I guess all of this is really in the same spirit in which Peter wrote How (Not) to Speak about God. Maybe my only real criticism should be titled “How (Not) to speak about the Church.”

To those of you that are reading this and not familiar with with the heart of Peter Rollins point about church gatherings and their form and functions in our lives, I want to challenge you to read them and take them to heart. I agree with what he is saying and am only responding to the way that we talk about and use the term 'church'. His observations are important for the Church that is that missional community of Christians gathering in our society. We must adapt, rethink and even repent for much of what we have institutionalized and engraved in the psyche of our culture. We must not only change how we 'do church' but also how we talk about the church, for they are both important aspects of our BEING the church.